Sgt. John Russell to Face Murder Charges but Not Death Penalty in Camp Liberty Massacre

John M. Russell.
"If you can't help me," Sgt. John Russell told Army doctors hours before he committed the deadliest act of soldier-on-soldier violence in the Iraq war, "then I will just kill myself." Instead the mentally unstable Texan killed five fellow U.S. service members in 2009 at Camp Liberty, Iraq, headquarters for Joint Base Lewis-McChord's 4th Stryker Brigade, then surrendered peacefully. Now a military judge has recommended that Russell be tried for the massacre but not face the possibility of paying for it with his life.

Col. James Pohl, chief judge of the Guantanamo Bay war crimes court and investigating officer into the Ford Hood massacre by Major Nidal Malik Hasan, presided over Russell's recent hearing, and concluded in a ruling Friday that Russell has an "undisputed mental disease or defect" that makes "the death penalty inappropriate in this case."

As recounted in a 2009 SW cover story, Russell, now 46, attached to a Germany-based U.S. engineering battalion, was on his third tour in Iraq and had turned suicidal. His commander confiscated his rifle and put him on unit watch, with a soldier-buddy to keep him company. But Russell obtained a gun and drove to a military stress center, killing four soldiers and a Navy officer.

Russell's case has been delayed over questions about his mental health. He was eventually found competent to stand trial, and while Pohl agreed Russell should indeed face murder charges, he felt the sergeant's mental condition did not warrant the possibility of execution should he be found guilty. Army officials will make the final decision on what charges, exactly, he will face, and when.

As the AP notes in its report on Pohl's finding, "Russell's case has raised questions about the mental problems for soldiers caused by repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and whether the Army's mental health care is adequate. The case led to an investigation and a critical report."

Russell's case partially mirrors the later 2009 slaughter of 13 officers and soldiers by Maj. Hasan at the Ford Hood Army clinic. Both shooters were stereotypical loners, according to the Army: failing at their jobs, growing angrier and more suicidal, and eventually choosing unsuspecting troops at Army clinics as their victims.

The Army missed warning signs at Fort Hood and at Camp Liberty that could have headed off both massacres, investigators later found.

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